Why the Hell Your Goals Aren’t Sticking

*as originally released in Anny Magazine, Vol. 1 in January 2017

Ahhh. The New Year is fresh off the press. It looks good, it smells good, hell — it even tastes good right now. But come January 15th, the New Year will begin to hurt. The flavor won’t be quite as pleasant as you remember from January 1st, the smell will be completely invisible to your acclimated nose, and what was lovely and vibrant a mere two weeks ago will become rather dull and boring.

Slowly we will drop that lovely New Year’s Resolution that came as a package bundle with 2017 and declare ourselves more comfortable with the same ol’ things we fervently announced ourselves bloody done with 360 hours previously. After all, it’s only another year, and aren’t we too old to change? The denizens of the Goal-Crushing god set up camp in the back of your brain, and before you know it, you’re writing down the same goal of publishing that novel or losing that weight on December 31st, 2017.

How long have you had that goal?

How many were sacrificed to the Goal-Crusher before you decided on this one?

Are you ready to don your best sword or wand and decide enough is enough? Because that is what it’s takes to be one of the few, the proud, the Doers. And we all like being doers, don’t we?

Why the Hell Your Goals Aren’t Sticking

What is going wrong when you eat those extra three donuts or decide that you’ll work out tomorrow (hint: you won’t)? How does this happen every single time? What are you missing?

An accountability partner?

The perfect time management system?

The perfect app?

A personal trainer?

A therapist?

A dog?

While some combination of the above may be true, what you are really missing is giving a fuck — i.e. motivation, though the other kind would no doubt be beneficial as well. A number of Miseries lead to this:

  • Burn out: Doing too much too soon (I have to change ALL THE THINGS)
  • Huge: Unsure of where/how to begin (Build my own home on an island in the Bahamas!)
  • Support: Nothing and no one to keep you accountable, not even to yourself (Who cares if I fail anyway?)
  • All-or-Nothing Mentality: Perfection is the only option (I must write two hours every single day or none at all — or I must eat only 1500 calories, otherwise the whole week is ruined)
  • Derailed: You’ve fallen off the tracks for the last week/month/6 months, and now you have to wait for a magical starting point to begin again. (Maybe it’s Sunday, maybe it’s the 1st of the month, maybe it’s New Years….maybe it’s all in your head. And that’s okay.)

Do any of these sound true? They certainly do for me. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count up the number of things I have spectacularly failed in doing, and they were all due to one or more of the five Miseries of the Goal-Crusher listed above. The Miseries do just that: make you miserable and fill you chock full of guilt, frustration, and eventually resignation to the fact that you are just the way you are and that’s the end of it. The novel remains unwritten, the weight slowly creeps further upwards, and that Bahamian island you had your eye on gets turned into a resort for socialite yuppies.

Now I am here to tell you that dammit it doesn’t have to be that way. You are a Doer, not a Watcher, and if you are to take on the Goal-Crusher, you must Do. It is in the ancestral blood running through your veins. For the rest of the article, we are going to figure out how exactly we will fight the Miseries and ultimately take on the big boss himself. But first, you need to do the following:

  1. Stretch. Do a couple of punches or jumping jacks. Warrior pose on your porch. Bathe in the blood of your enemies. Whatever gets you​ awake and taking deep breaths, now is the time to do it.
  2. Make a cup of tea or coffee. Pour yourself some juice or water. Pop a top off a beer. Guzzle the rest of your champagne left over from New Year’s. We’re going to be doing serious work here, and you need all the hydration (and, perhaps, buzz) you can get.
  3. Get some pen and paper, if you’re the analog type. Conversely, open up Google Docs or Word. We’re going to be writing things down in detail here, so wherever you’re writing, make sure you have enough space.
  4. Get some alone time. No spouse, no kids, no cellphones, no parents, no neighbors, no Facebook, no students, no bodies in the road allowed. If you’re getting ready to slay the Miseries, you need to be in your zen, focused and contemplative without the distraction of others. I first encountered the idea of distraction switching in The One Thing by Gary Keller, but there is a New York Times article on it as well http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/05/opinion/sunday/a-focus-on-distraction.html . Basically both state interruptions make it more difficult to return to your initial task, though some brain adaptability occurs upon repetition. However, for our purposes, tell everyone to leave you the hell alone for two private hours so you can crush demons. or life plan — whatever you want to call it.

​How to Slay the Goal-Crusher

​Do you have your armor? Your weapon? Plenty of fluids? Solitude?

Perfect. Let’s begin our training.

First: how do you feel?

No, this isn’t your therapist talking. Take stock with yourself: how are you feeling about designing goals in a way that actually work? Are you excited? Nervous? Skeptical that it’s just another thing that will be lost in the attack of the Miseries? That’s okay. Whatever it is, be honest with yourself. That’s the first step.

Second: put your pen to paper or open up your word document next to this window, your cursor blinking dreamily at you. Take 1 minute and write down all the things you want to accomplish, big and small. Don’t censor yourself, don’t stop to correct your mistakes. Just get it down on paper and we will deal with the rest. I’ll wait.

Finished?

Third: Circle or put an X next to your top five goals. Breathe. You’re doing great. Now place a star next to your top three. This might be pretty hard, and that’s normal. We all have a fuckton of things we want to accomplish, but in order to prepare ourselves for the Burned Out Misery, we have to pare down to three. There is plenty of literature out there on how many goals you should focus on at any given time, so frankly, the number is up to you. If the Burned Out Misery is one that has sabotaged your efforts again and again, I urge you to pare down to two, or perhaps even one to start with. As you become comfortable with achieving success, you can slowly add in another goal at a time until you’ve hit your sweet spot.

My three for 2017: Achieve 23% Body Fat, Increase Personal Development Satisfaction, and Complete Of Gods and Men (my languishing novel)

Fourth: Write your top three goals down again. Now ask yourself: how will obtaining this goal make me feel? In Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map, she posits that anytime we reach for a goal, we are actually trying to obtain a particular feeling, not necessarily a thing itself. It is quintessentially why you are choosing to chase a goal. For example:

Achieve 23% Body Fat: I want to feel healthy and satisfied.
Increase Personal Development Satisfaction: I want to feel in tune with myself, with others, and with my environment. I want to feel knowledgeable, respected, and in control.
Complete My Novel: I want to feel accomplished, admired, and basically awesome.

Don’t censor your thoughts; go with your gut instinct. What feelings are you chasing? What do your goals have in common in how they’ll make you feel? Are you doing them for you, or are you doing them for someone else? Will they make you happy, or will they make your mother/father/spouse/resident troll happy?

Fifth: Think about your goals now. Are they the best way to achieve how it is you want to feel? If all you really want to feel is proud, is running a marathon despite hating running really the best way to get that feeling? Or would you feel just as proud by breaking a smoking habit or building a computer from scratch?

Refer back to your long list of all the goals you made before identifying your top three. Next to your goal, write down the primary emotion it will make you feel. Do this for all of them. Notice any commonalities? Any outliers? Do any of your top three need to be replaced with a goal that will give you a feeling you crave even more? Revise your three as necessary. Before I settled on mine listed above, I had “become debt free” as a top three. Most of you will probably agree that this is a worthwhile goal. But when I identified how it would make me feel — relief and freedom — I realized that, as a habitual goal-breaker, I needed to accomplish things that would feed my self-confidence and make me feel like a badass before I took on what feels like an insurmountable impossibility. So I replaced it with Increasing Personal Development Satisfaction. However, just because becoming debt free is no longer a top three doesn’t mean I can’t still work for it — I simply need to boost myself into the kind of person that will become debt-free, before I can actually do it.

Sixth: Be specific: what exactly is it that you want? How will you know that you have achieved it? Some things such as weight loss or savings are quantifiable. Others can be a little more difficult, especially when dealing with vagueries. Return to your feelings surrounding your chosen goal — achieving that feeling will often let you know that you have arrived, and your arrival may not be exactly where you anticipated either. Whatever your end point is, you need to make it as concrete as possible. Feel it, taste it, smell it, hold it. Most importantly, make sure you are chasing the right things.

Achieve 23% Body Fat was first written as Lose 31 Lbs. However, when I thought about it a little longer, I realized I was more concerned with building muscle and strong joints than just lowering numbers on a scale. Ta-da! I have a new quest, and I still know precisely when I’ve completed it. Now, what if I hit 25% by December 31st (or whenever my initial completion date is set for) instead of my target 23%? Do I shred the books, burn the house down, and start paying rent at Dunkin Donuts? Maybe, but unlikely. Here’s the secret: chase progress, not perfection. If I am feeling ‘healthy and satisfied’ come the end of the year, then I’ve hit a deeper goal than just a number; I feel bloody good about myself, and that’s what makes this whole game work.

Have you made yours specific yet? Notice I didn’t put “lose weight” or “gain muscle” — I gave it an objectively measurable target while still keeping in mind my completely-subjectable feelings. What if yours is “Be a better son” or “Become a famous NBA player”? Don’t worry — the last step of this exercise will be extraordinarily useful to you. In the meantime, please write down the definition of those vague words like “better” or “famous” and try to understand what it is you actually want. Otherwise, the Goal-Crusher will sic his Miseries on you so fast you won’t be able to tell dumb from dumber.

Steps three through five above are your armor against the Burn-Out Misery. Step six is your sword to cut through the Huge Misery. See where this is going? We are equipping ourselves for battle, and can you think of a hero who succeeded alone? How far would Frodo have gotten without Sam? Harry would have accidentally poisoned himself in book one without Ron and Hermione. Even Daenerys Targareyn had advisors counseling her next steps. So now it’s time to identify who it is you’ve got saddling the dragons.

Build your army: this is your seventh step to prepare for battle with the Support Misery. Your army can consist of as many or as few characters as you choose, but be wise in your choices. With each person you consider, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. ​Will this person laugh at my goal?
  2. Will they remember to hold me accountable? Or will I have to be accountable for their accountability?
  3. Does this person frequently have drama in their life, indicating #2 is likely at some point?
  4. Has this person contributed to my failures in the past?

If you answered YES to any of those questions, then deny them entry to your Army HQ. However, if your supporter bravely marches through with resounding NO’s, welcome them as warriors-in-arms (or medics, if your goal is to become a black belt and you’re particularly accident-prone).

“But I am a lone wolf!” I hear you cry in the back. Yes, you — with the black duster and 19th century colt with a cigarette dangling from the corner of your mouth. True, some of us fight this war uphill all alone, and if you are bound and determined to do it that way, suit yourself. Consider the option of frequenting accountability forums (reddit and Nerd Fitness both offer good options) so that your pixel self will be accountable to someone in the world. If you’re a lone wolf completely by circumstance, check out Meetups, reddit forums for your local city, Facebook groups for your area, or head on over to your local library and see if they know about any sorts of groups trying to achieve similar goals to you. Perhaps a college club for the students out there is a way to go; maybe a small group of your coworkers is more manageable. Remember that whatever you put out into the world is what you will receive.

Ultimately, however, you must be accountable to yourself, however that looks, and towards the end of this article I will provide a few of my favorite motivational and accountability tools. For now, I want you to take a three minute break and jot down all the potential people, groups, sites, clubs, apps, and tools that come to mind for each of your identified goals. You can sift through them later.

Eighth: It’s the All-or-Nothing Miseries. These two twins are Perfectionism and Paralysis, and they go hand in hand. When we fail to measure up to the standards we set for ourselves (even if they are impossibly high), we have a tendency to throw it all to the wind and become paralyzed by what we feel are ingrained inadequacies. An intriguing article by Greg Weber (http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/treatinganxiety/2015/03/how-to-escape-the-hell-of-perfectionist-paralysis/) explains how this work and steps to overcome the paralysis that results from ruining a perfect streak, and all of his recommendations boil down to one simple idea: progress, not perfection.

Make this your battle cry. Carve it into your floors. Write it in lipstick on your mirror. Place a sticky note on your computer. Michael Derem wrote a book in 1999 titled Fail Your Way to Success, and this has become an idea touted from the rooftops of Google to the valleys of Apple, and it holds no less true for you. This is not a mindset that changes overnight, and I heartily recommend Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck if you are interested in learning more about this newfangled idea of Growth Mindset.

Embrace this fact: you will mess up. Embrace this second fact: the world will keep turning, and you can try again. With your armor, your weapon, and your army, the All-or-Nothing Miseries are your first true fight, and just when you explode their heads by Doing, as Doers Do, you meet their big sister: Derailed.

No matter your support, no matter how concrete your goals, no matter your mindset — there will be at least once where you fuck up. You gained ten pounds after blowing your concerns to the wind for the holidays. You look up and realize it’s June, and you haven’t written a single damn word since March…of last year. Oops. Well, it’s time for a fresh start! And the next year that January 1st falls on a Sunday with a full moon and a blanket of snow on the ground will be the perfect time to get back on track.

Nope. Nope. Nope. While the All-or-Nothing twins are in your face and ugly, Derailed is the sweet siren whispering in your ear, making you promises about how great you absolutely will be one day, eventually, when everything is just so. She will sing you a beautiful song, my friend, and it will be the end of you. Derailed is counting on your self-doubt, your frustration, your jealousy and misery. She is counting on you being a Sayer, not a Doer.

How do you fight Derailment?

You get up, lace on your boots, strap on your best axe, and you do. To quote Neil Gaiman, it’s that easy and it’s that hard.

All well and good, you say, you putting your cigarette out with your boot and tucking your flask into your pocket. But what does that actually look like? Your voice is gravelly from years of skepticism and fruitless work. How does one just get up and do?

By starting with the smallest possible step. Derailment is the most seductive, and therefore the most difficult, Misery to overcome, and so this is where the real hard work begins. Human beings are driven by achievement, both short term and long term. These big goals we set for ourselves with incredible specificity now need a deadline: when do you want them to happen? See, we are going to break the singular Goal into multiple 90 day goals to help us feel like we are hitting those milestones just a little faster, encouraging our progress enough to avoid the temptation to quit altogether when Derailed rears her hideously gorgeous head. Every single one of my goals listed above are goals for the end of 2017. Are they feasible? Yes, I think so. I had to take a hard look at what was realistic before determining that, weighing my job, my relationships, my home obligations, my health, and the inordinate amount of time I spend obsessing over planners. My goal of paying off my debt completely? A lot harder. Not impossible, but realistically, it wouldn’t happen by 2017. So I would chart out exactly what those financial obligations looked like, what I would be balancing them with, my anticipated monthly budgets….and I might be able to get there by 2019. If having a home in the Bahamas is more like this for you — that’s totally okay. It just means you’re going to have a few more 90 day goals than I am, but what is important is that you feel as though progress is being made.

What’s the point of continuing a quest when you can’t lop off a few troll heads along the way?

The process of creating 90 day goals requires a fair bit of forward thinking on your part. So, ready for the next step?

Ninth: Choose your own adventure: [a] grab a small 2 year date planner with enough space to jot small notes down; [b] use your computer calendar, phone calendar, wall calendar, magical calendar that exists in the cupboard under the stairs that you can have in front of you to refer to while you work on paper (it can be transferred later); [c] use an integrated calendar such as Google Calendar, iCal, Outlook, etc. that you are already comfortable with and that preferably allows you to include task lists.

On your paper, quickly jot down any responsibilities through in your personal and professional life that you know you’re going to have to balance. Do it for a full 12 months. Mine looks something like this:

2017: January:

Holidays until Jan. 9

Grocery + Meal Prep Jan 15

MLK Holiday Jan. 16

Dr. Jan 19

All-Day Conference Jan. 21

Meal Prep Jan 22

Testing Prep Week Jan. 23–26

Grocery + Meal Prep Jan 29

College homework due Jan. 30

2017: February

Dr. Feb 2

Meal Prep Feb 5

Meal Prep Feb 12

4th 6 Weeks Testing Feb 14–17

Dr. Feb 16

Grocery + Meal Prep Feb 19

All-Day PD Feb. 20

End of Grading Period Feb 24

Meal Prep Feb 26

College homework due Feb. 28

Grad School Application due Feb. 28

→ Sign up for exam at some point?!

These are the first two months of my year. I will save you what the rest of my year (which currently runs until July) looks like unless you’re morbidly interested, but I think this gives you an idea of what you’re looking at. When I have the end of a grading period coming up, I know that those two weeks are going to be swamped with tying up all the loose ends, and I am more likely to be focused on my work than anything else. But see those juicy weeks where there is nothing but meal prep on Sundays happening? Those weeks are gold for working on my goals. As long as those weeks (and honestly, days) exist, I know that I HAVE the time as long as I am willing to beat off the Miseries to hold onto it. Because there are gaps in there, I can say that yes, it is in fact realistic for me to think that I can complete a novel in a year. These wide open weeks prove it. (Having 10 weeks of summer vacation helps too).

So now I want you to take as much time as you need to either write out in your planner, type it up on your app/calendar, or physically list it with the help of a calendar for dates the way I have above. Being able to mark a visual is the best way to really take stock of your time and see what chunks will be owned by other obligations. However, having a list will at minimum force you to think ahead and be intentional about your goals. Go ahead. I’ll be here sipping my coffee that is definitely not spiked with panic when you’re done. If you can plan a whole year, great. If you can only get through 3 months, that’s a solid start. We are not turning into robots here; flexibility will remain king.

How do you feel? Wretched? Curious? Overwhelmed? Giddy? It’s an interesting perspective to think this far ahead and see it all laid out before you. Now as I did above, I want you to ask yourself: when can I realistically expect to achieve my goal? The less vague your goal is, the easier this is to answer. If your goal relies on you winning the lottery, well, you might want to reconsider your methods on how you plan to achieve it. Now go ahead and put a COMPLETED ON next to your goals. This can be temporary and may very well shift once you start to plot out your 90 day goals, but for now it is extremely helpful to have a date set. Even if you are bent on achieving a goal that feels impossible right now, our next step in the 90 day break down will start to churn those ideas for you and bring the concrete into your world of ocean.

Because my brain works this way, I am choosing to COMPLETE my goals ON December 31st, 2017. That is exactly four 90 day periods, and I believe this is a reasonable expectation given my schedules.

Okay.

Tenth: What are your four (or six, or ten) major milestones that let you know for sure that you are on your way towards achieving your goal? Be sure to frame your milestones positively — telling what you WILL do instead of what you WON’T be doing.

Example:

Goal: Achieve 23% Body Fat

Milestone 1: By April 1st, I will have an established routine at the SMU gym, and I will be visiting twice a week. In addition, I will have successfully completed 60 days of an at-home routine for exercise. My caloric intake will reach a net 1500.

Milestone 2: By July 1st, I will be visiting the gym at least 3x a week, and I will have successfully completed another 60 days of an at-home routine for exercise. My caloric intake will stabilize at a net 1500. I will have reached a maximum of 30% body fat.

Milestone 3: By October 1st, I will have continued the above, and I will have reached a maximum 26% body fat.

Milestone 4: By December 31st, all of the above will be solid habits. I will have a nutritious diet that suits my lifestyle with the help of a nutritionist and helps put my lupus as a minor inconvenience of my life. I will have achieved 23% body fat, and I will have a habit of attending the gym at least 3 times a week, with or without classes.

When I hit these 90 day intervals, I get to stop and assess where I am on my way to making my goal. If I am way off balance, then I take the time to stop and reflect on what’s gone wrong. Did Derailed take me for a swim? That’s okay. It was fun, but now it’s time to hop back on the boat and get chugging along towards the next quest point. I mentioned above that you do this by taking the smallest action possible. What does that look like? Here’s your answer.

None of these milestones can be achieved by wishing. The more you actually plan for how you will accomplish these crucial way points, the more likely you are to succeed, even if it’s by virtue of doing one tiny thing.

Eleventh: Write down your first goal and the COMPLETED ON date. Decide how many 90 day intervals will be necessary, thus bringing you to your number of milestones you’re checking in on. Write them out as specifically as possible: where do I want to be three months from now? Six months? What will 3/4 of the way to my goal look like? Leave five to ten lines of space in between each milestone. Now return to your first one. I want you to break it down further. What are the smallest things you can do to achieve your first 90 day marker? And — here’s the catch — I want you to consider which of the Miseries you are targeting with these steps, and do your best to dethrone all five.

Example:

Achieve 23% Body Fat > Milestone 1 (written above)

1. Get my SMU student ID so I can use the gym for free (Huge)

1a. Set up inital intake meeting to measure starting stats and get tour of equipment​

2. Purchase portion control containers from Amazon ($10) or research DIY alternatives (Huge)

3. Work with an experienced individual on a nutritional meal plan (via Simbi? Insurance company wellness plan?) (Support)

3a. Call Health Coach to find out options

4. Research different bodyweight exercises and create awesome workout jar from pinterest (Huge)

4a. ​Create a exercise tracker in my journal

5. Meal prep each Sunday for 5 lunches and at least 2 dinners (Derailed; All-or-Nothing)

6. Log each meal into Poundaweek app (Support)

7. Continue with Fabulous app plan (Derailed; All-or-Nothing)

8. Create workout playlist/find an awesome one on Google Play (Huge)

9. Tell my boyfriend about my goals because I know he’ll make sure I stay on track (Support)

10. Put my gym bag in my car before I leave home (Huge)

These are not necessarily sequential steps, but I know they are all important for my success. Notice to the side I wrote out the Miseries each of these steps would tackle. Notice how Burn Out is missing.

Burn out is taken care of in breaking down your BIG GOAL into these 90 day chunks. Instead of saying right off the bag I am going to show up to the gym 3 times a week and work out at home 90 days in my 90 day interval, I gave myself some grace. I am going to go just twice a week and feel it out. I’m going to give myself slack and ask for 60 days of my home workout (which takes all of 10 minutes) as opposed to demanding 90 from the get-go. And each of these steps is something to grab onto if you happened to get Derailed.

Gorge on office donuts again? Your whole week doesn’t have to be ruined. Simply go home, recommit yourself, and pick up the lunch you prepared on Sunday to get you started healthy eating again. Afraid of looking idiotic in the gym? Ask for a tour and a brief demo of the machines you think you’re most interested in. You’re more inclined to use them later if you know how. And the list goes on.

Now return to your paper. You have listed out your milestones with space in between each. Think hard and write down any and all of the smallest steps possible that come to mind, and see how they might address the Miseries when they come a-knockin’. If lists aren’t your thing, try mindmapping or a thought cloud — your process is unique, and unless you choose to show someone, there’s no need for anyone to ever see your thinking, only your results.

You may find at this point your COMPLETED ON date needs to shift. Do so and adjust accordingly. The beauty of it all is we are just beginning, and you have all the time you need to fine tune your plans. However, don’t fall in the trap of forever tweaking for perfection and never starting. Something I often find helpful is to give a Due Date for two or three of the steps I’ve listed for the first milestone of each goal, and that gets the ball rolling when I feel stuck.

Now repeat this process for each milestone for each goal you’ve listed. Yes, this is time-consuming and difficult. But in the end the time you are putting in now is saving you days, months, years of heartache and frustration down the road. You are honing the sword you will use to slay the Goal-Crusher.

On that note, this is where I must leave you. I have given you the path you must take, and while you are never alone, it is a journey you must complete. A follow up article will be blessedly shorter and contain multitudes of resources to consider. I have named some books, sites, and groups to begin with. The rest is up to you. The Goal-Crusher is orchestrating your failure at every move, and the quest before you is arduous at best. However, should you dedicate yourself to the path you have designed here today and bravely face the Miseries as nothing more than distractions from your prize, you will find yourself face to face with the Goal-Crusher and learn the Ultimate Truth: the Goal Crusher is you.